By STEVE KELLER
For The Sunday Gazette
The biggest thing standing in the way of true democracy isn’t lobbyists, a lack of term limits or even corporate money — it’s gerrymandering. The size and pervasiveness of this problem goes to the very heart of our democracy: It determines how our votes get translated into representation and thus policy.
It’s no surprise, then, that real districting reform is something we rarely take a serious shot at. You may remember that Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave up on his fight for fair districting last year in exchange for passage of the state budget. Back then, he got a promise from the power players in the Legislature that we’d work to set up an “independent commission” to draw up districts in an impartial way.
The details of that proposal have just been approved by the state Senate — and believe it or not, the commission isn’t independent at all. By design, its members are under the sway of the Legislature and the political parties whose influence it’s supposed to keep in check. Whatever plan the commission comes up with, the Legislature has to approve it — or alter it and then approve it. And if the commission fails to come up with a map — well then, the Legislature will just draw one up themselves!
It’s now clear that our representatives not only avoided a Cuomo veto but also real accountability. In 2014, we’ll get the chance to approve or reject this scheme. I say we pass and push our government to come up with something better.
But there’s a problem: No matter what, redistricting is a process riddled with hypocrisies, inconsistencies and corruption.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re sitting down with a big map of New York state and you’re tasked with dividing up its Assembly and Senate districts. (Presumably you’re an expert on New York state demographics.)
You could try to make homogenous districts — districts where party enrollment is 80-90 percent the same across the board. There wouldn’t really be any competition in the general election, which means seats would rarely change hands except in primary upsets. But most everyone in the district would be (reasonably) happy with the outcome.
Or, you could try to make “balanced” districts — where party enrollment is more or less evenly split. In this case, every general election race would be a real contest — but each district would still have around 45 percent who are unhappy with the outcome.
Which do you go with?
And by the way, in engineering either of these two options (and having your districts remain evenly sized) you’re going to have to employ some pretty interesting mapmaking to get the right combination of folks within your district lines.
Suppose you have ulterior motives and you don’t care about what would make the “fairest” map. You’re looking at a tight concentration of voters in one particular area — voters that don’t vote the way you want them to. And they’re surrounded by your party’s supporters.
Don’t worry, there are a couple ways you could rig this one. You could “pack” the rival party’s voters all into one district — the other side will get one homogenous district they’ll win by 50 points each time, and you’ll get three or four that you win by fi ve. (But you’ll really win, since you’ll get more districts out of it.)
You could also “crack” that concentration up — dividing it up into three or four pieces and annexing each chunk to the surrounding districts. Now, you have four districts, and the other party has none. Awesome!
OUT WITH THE OLD
Maybe you see where I’m going with this. There is no “fair” way to draw districts. Should people who live in the same area share a representative? Or should it be people who share the same political ideology? Someone’s always going to be left out and unhappy. Districts are always going to be awkwardly drawn — “packing” and “cracking” will (and do) happen all the time.
And if the parties get even a finger on the pen that draws the districts? Well, they’re going to pull out all the stops and draw the map themselves. If it’s one party that’s in control, they’ll give themselves an advantage. If it’s two parties working in collusion, they’ll keep the status quo alive and prevent silly things like voters or elections from changing it.
So what to do? My proposal: Don’t have districts.
Or, at least, don’t have one layer of districts — have one layer from each party. If each party got a total share of representatives equal to the share of votes they got statewide, then divided their “map” up accordingly, everyone in New York state would have a local representative from each party. No one would be left out, and no one would be gerrymandered into electoral oblivion — that word would simply cease to exist on a partisan basis. (Better yet, you wouldn’t need to worry about a “spoiler” effect when voting third- or fourth-party!)
Democracy isn’t as simple as “one person, one vote.” Our structures determine how our will gets turned into action. For instance, isn’t it a little strange that the two legislative bodies that are supposed to mirror the people’s politics are controlled by two different parties? The very idea of districting is the true source of our problems for one simple reason: When the parties control their own elections and the balance of power, they don’t have to worry about our opinions, or votes, anymore.
This plan is imperfect, as all plans are, but it would certainly shake up the status quo and do a better job than the current system. The question we have to ask is: Would we rather have democracy look like a government of the people or like a Rorschach inkblot test?
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.